Steve Bannon pleads not guilty over border wall campaign

  21 August 2020    Read: 629
Steve Bannon pleads not guilty over border wall campaign

Former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon pleaded not guilty on Thursday hours after being arrested on a luxury yacht for allegedly skimming donations from an online fundraising campaign for the president’s controversial border wall with Mexico, the Guardian reports. 

Using a non-profit organization that he controlled, Bannon “received over $1m from the ‘We Build the Wall’ online campaign, at least some of which he used to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in [his] personal expenses”, federal prosecutors in New York allege.

Wearing a white face mask, and looking sunburnt, Bannon appeared briefly in a federal court in downtown Manhattan just after 4pm ET, and his lawyer entered a not guilty plea.

Bannon was arrested at about 7.15am ET on a yacht off the coast of Connecticut, it was said in court, and he was brought to New York city several hours later.

Bannon will now be released on a $5m bond, backed by $1.75m in cash or real estate. He has until 3 September to get this collateral together, and is expected to leave the courthouse later Thursday, with photographers and reporters waiting to greet him.

The judge also said one bail condition was that Bannon would have “no use of private planes or private yachts or boats”, which follows reports he was arrested on the yacht of a Chinese businessman, who the New York Times reported was Guo Wengui.

The court appearance follows the announcement of the charges earlier on Thursday.

Three other men, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, were also arrested in this alleged scheme to defraud the non-profit, which authorities said raised more than $25m.

The charges, made by the Department of Justice’s southern district of New York (SDNY), were contained in an indictment unsealed in Manhattan federal court.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Bannon and three others “orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors”.

According to the indictment, promises were made that 100% of the donated money would be used for the project.

But it alleged they faked invoices and sham “vendor” arrangements, among other ways, to hide what was really happening.

The men are facing one count each of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each count has a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.

Bannon was chief executive officer of Trump’s election campaign in its final months in 2016 and later served as the president’s chief strategist for seven months during the turbulent early phase of the administration. He was firedas a top adviser to the president in the summer of 2017, though recently Trump is said to have been talking about him positively.

After the indictment was unsealed, the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, distanced the president from the scheme, saying he had “not been involved” with Bannon since the campaign and the early part of the administration, and he did not know the other people.

She said: “As everyone knows, President Trump has no involvement in this project and felt it was only being done in order to showboat, and perhaps raise funds. President Trump has previously and publicly stated the following: ‘I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads. It was only done to make me look bad, and perhaps it now doesn’t even work.’”

It has been previously reported by the New York Times that the president had given the private project his blessing.

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